June 2020

Arts & Letters

Snap-back: Dua Lipa’s ‘Future Nostalgia’

By Anwen Crawford
The British singer’s serendipitous album delivers shining pop with a reigning attitude of fortitude

Among the varied effects of spending the past few months chiefly inside and alone, the one I really hadn’t counted on was a conversion to Kylie Minogue. She’s just always been there, loco-motioning across the television screen, bubbling forth from the car radio and being piped over the PA of every suburban shopping centre. Her omnipresence worked against her; I never encountered her songs as distinct events because they were so much an aspect of everyday social life and its spaces. I took these phenomena for granted, much as I had taken Kylie.

Then, in late March, a new album by British singer Dua Lipa arrived, just in time for the COVID-19 shutdown. Future Nostalgia is an outstandingly sleek dance-pop record, at once familiar and fresh; exactly the kind of thing that would have been playing of late in clubs, cafes and Kmarts all over the land. But the clubs were shuttered, the cafes emptied of tables, and, unlike our prime minister, I had no essential need to shop for jigsaw puzzles. Left dancing on my own in my stay-at-home disco, and thinking about precedents for Lipa’s sound, I went back to Kylie – specifically, the Kylie of 20 years ago, circa “Spinning Around” and “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”, hits so ubiquitous that I failed, then, to hear them properly. The passage of time has lessened their ubiquity, and now even their familiarity felt newly powerful. Absent of diversion, I finally felt their full resplendence, and surrendered like a cat rolling over in the sun. My god, what merciless pleasure-giving devices these songs are! Again, Kylie, again. Make me groove, make me beg.

Dua Lipa shows no quarter, either. On “Physical”, which quotes Australia’s other white disco queen, Olivia Newton-John, she commands me to “keep on dancing like you ain’t got a choice”. Whatever you say, ladies. You hold the whip hand.

Lipa and her team couldn’t have known, when they were writing Future Nostalgia, that the album’s credo – a credo of dancing-as-duty and erotics-as-discipline – would gain a new resonance in a world where the imperative to work and keep working would be stymied by events. Yet this catastrophe of capital, which is consequently a catastrophe for labour, has resulted in a situation where the pressure to remain efficient is, if anything, greater than it was before. Ten Ways to Organise Your Home Office Hours! Eight Effective Tips for the Newly Jobless! Here we are, in a situation where global unemployment is rising beyond what was experienced during the Great Depression, where old inequities cut ever deeper as new miseries are added to those wounds, and yet the talk of “productivity” and “snap-back” goes on.

Future Nostalgia is a snap-back album if there ever was one. Across its 11 tracks – not a ballad among them, and thank goodness for that – the reigning attitude is fortitude. “I’m all good already / So moved on it’s scary”, Lipa scoffs on “Don’t Start Now”, flicking an ex off her fingernail. The song, which alludes to every disco smash from Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” through to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”, was released in late October last year, as Future Nostalgia’s lead single. It has since gone four times platinum in Australia alone, and deservedly so, for it is a pièce de résistance of pop craft: cowbell, synthetic strings, handclaps and all, its arrangement propelled by a hard-as-funk bassline but made just limber enough thanks to Lipa’s warm and chocolatey contralto. Vocally, for certain, Lipa is a different creature to Minogue, whose bright but brittle tone has always put me in mind of porcelain. It’s the singers’ shared affection for pop history, and pop ebullience, that makes them sisters in spirit.

Lipa’s enjoyment of her material makes Future Nostalgia more than simply an exercise in past musical styles. It also, inadvertently, adds an extra sheen of pleasurable absurdity to the album being released now. “I would’ve stayed at home / ’Cause I was doing better alone”, rat-a-tats Lipa in the chorus of “Break My Heart”, a song that echoes the melody and cadence of – wait for it – INXS’s 1987 pop-funk hit “Need You Tonight”. (Did Dua Lipa do her PhD in Australian chart toppers, or something?) Ahahahahahah, sure, yep: absolutely doing better alone, thanks for asking. This mismatch between musical mood and lived circumstance enhances the songs’ vivacity, and so it is that an album about staying in control – in love, in bed and on the dance floor – has become the pop album for a time of massive upheaval. I submit to Lipa’s mastery, which includes her self-mastery, for the sake of the illusion that somebody knows what they’re doing. And when I look back two or five years from now, my memory of bouncing about the living room to Dua Lipa – and thence to Kylie, Madonna, even Haddaway (yes, it’s been quite the gay house party round here) – will be one of very few things that I recall fondly from this time. Future nostalgia, indeed.

Albeit counterintuitive, pop as a genre – glistening, danceable pop – tends to chart best during times of economic downturn. Disco began its mainstream takeover in the mid 1970s, on the back of an oil crisis, a sharemarket crash, rising unemployment and inflation. The global recession of the early 1980s was soundtracked by synth-pop and the New Romantics, while the dot-com crash of the early 2000s was countered, in the charts, by a teen-pop bubble, the chief stock of which was Britney Spears. Just over a decade ago, as the global financial crisis unfolded, Katy Perry, Rihanna and The Black Eyed Peas were all racking up massive sales.

Dua Lipa mixes all of these pop eras on Future Nostalgia. Along with disco she stirs in a bit of Britney’s purr and even more of Rihanna’s fondness for a soaring, fist-in-the-air chorus. Listeners will hear as much Eurythmics as Olivia Newton-John in “Physical”. And though she’s not old enough to remember the Spice Girls firsthand, having been born in 1995, Lipa nevertheless projects that same, very British sense of cheek, as if she could drink you under the table and then happily head out for a late-night burger and chips. The Spice Girls, of course, reached their commercial apex as the world headed into the grip of millennial anxiety.

What Lipa also shares with her pop predecessors is the fact that her songs end up pretty much everywhere. Not while everything’s shut down, admittedly, but trust me, you’ve heard a Dua Lipa song, or several of them, without even being conscious of it. Her self­titled, 12-track debut album, released in 2017, yielded no less than nine – nine! – singles. The first, “New Love”, preceded the album itself by almost two years, while the last, “IDGAF”, charted in 2018.

To release half or more of an album’s tracks as singles is an old-fashioned strategy, at this point, when social media tends to generate one-off viral hits such as last year’s “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X, or when established artists such as Drake cynically game their streaming numbers by including one proven hit on an otherwise desultory record. (Streaming just one track still counts towards an album’s total digital sales.) But in Lipa’s case the “all bangers, no clangers” strategy has worked: like Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”, or Rihanna’s early smash “Umbrella”, her many singles are just, well, there, manifest in the atmosphere. “IDGAF” and its lurching, multi-tracked chorus that sounds like an army of vengeful zombie Lipas, or the dance-hall bounce on the verses of “Hotter than Hell” – I swear you could stand in a field 300 kilometres from the nearest smartphone, radio or gym and still hear them.

Musical popularity that feels like a natural phenomenon is, needless to say, anything but. Scads of people work to make it work, from the artist herself to her fellow songwriters to producers, choreographers, publicists and the chief executives of major record labels, who want a fat return on their outlay. And the pessimist’s view on this – perhaps even the realist’s view – would be to say that massive pop success is, as Frankfurt School theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer put it, “a manufactured need”. Especially at times of crisis, does pop not function to paper over the cracks in social consensus, producing quietude when what’s actually needed are many different critical voices?

Adorno would have thought so, but then I’ve always thought that ol’ Teddy and Max rather overstated the case when it came to the meanings that can or cannot be made from mass culture. No meaning at all, those two believed: “No independent thinking must be expected from the audience: the product prescribes every reaction.” Close to a century of popular music has shown something different, I think, which is that audiences create both individual and collective meanings out of songs in ways those songs’ makers could have never anticipated. Perhaps people turn to aspirational styles like disco precisely because of the gap, as with Future Nostalgia, between the music’s surface message and the resonance it acquires at a time when striving for success, making the best of yourself, seems more futile than ever. Nuance and irony, in other words. Enjoyment wrought from despair, for enjoyment’s sake. These too are forms of meaning, and of thinking.

And, sometimes, the meaning one makes is actually more predictable, more prescribed, than what the song offers. “All night, I’ll ride it with you”, sings Lipa on “Physical”, the intimation of sexual athleticism fitting right in with what I want the song to be, with Lipa in the role of boss lady-slash-personal trainer. (“Amusement under late capitalism is the prolongation of work,” wrote Adorno and Horkheimer.) Only, she doesn’t sing that at all. The line is “All night, I’ll riot with you”, and when I finally heard it correctly I thought of Drake – yes, him again – mooching around his Toronto mega-palace in the video for “Toosie Slide”, his April single, like Marie Antoinette wandering Versailles just before the women of Paris marched upon it, demanding bread. Oh, Dua, I’ll riot with you, too.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

Photograph by Markus Pritzi

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